Texas Living

The Ultimate Road Trip Playlist by Texans, for Texans

By Peter Simek 2.26.18

What makes a good road trip playlist? It’s difficult to pin down an exact formula, but great road songs are usually evocative of the sense of adventure. They break the mood and monotony of the drive. They can tell stories of lost loves or homes, or their beat can mimic the rhythmic whirring of tires on asphalt. The best road songs do more than break the boredom of a long drive, they drive you on, inspire detours, and bring the landscape to life.

Texas is a state that has inspired more than a few epic road trips, so it is no surprise that Texas musicians are masters of the road song. It is difficult to reduce the Lone Star State’s vast catalog of road-bound jams to a single car stereo road trip playlist, but we gave it a shot.

“On the Road Again” by Willie Nelson

Where else can we start than Nelson’s 1980 hit, more or less the quintessential song for the road? Its simplicity distills the anticipation, excitement, and boundless optimism that inspires the start of any road trip.

“King of the Road” by Roger Miller

Miller’s 1965 crossover country hit is another one of the most iconic road songs ever written. We can all identify with its main character, a carefree hobo who pushes brooms long enough to float farther down the road, enjoying the freedom that America’s highway-crisscrossed landscape evokes.

“Amarillo by Morning” by George Strait

All it takes is the yearning moan of an opening fiddle lick followed by the lilting uplift of the opening vocal melody for Strait’s masterpiece to perfectly capture that melancholic flipside to the optimism of a great road tune. Strait’s song embodies the sadness that can accompany departing and arriving, the changes that travel inspires, and the realization that roads take us not only from places, but also from people and the past.

“Amarillo Highway” by Terry Allen

What is it about the dusty Panhandle town of Amarillo that inspires some of Texas’ best songwriters? Perhaps it is precisely because it is so far-flung, located in the midst of such a great expanse of flatness, that it springs up from the hard Texas earth despite the inhospitable landscape around it. Allen’s stomping honky-tonk anthem captures the character such a place breeds perfectly with a song that is full up of dry wit, wry irony, defiance, pride, and pure Texas swagger.

“Lone Star State of Mind” by Nanci Griffith

The young Nanci Griffith’s early hit is a forgotten country gem full of genuine feeling, hummable melodies, and sweet, evocative lyrics. But it is the double-time shuffle on the snare drum that will make you want to point the bumper west and hope you’ll never arrive at the horizon.

“Dublin Blues” by Guy Clark

On the surface, Clark’s cranky ballad appears to be inspired by a simple bout of homesickness that conjures a taste for Austin while wandering abroad. But peel back the layers, and Clark is reeling over lost love and looking for things on the road that are too far gone to ever reach again.

“Galveston” by Glen Campbell

There may be no better song about a Texas locale than Campbell’s seaside ballad. His expansive crooning conjures a tale of lives and worlds caught in the undertow of time and the horror of war as innocence confronts experience in the form of a lost love that doubles as a lost home.

“Waltz Across Texas” by Ernest Tubb

Even if your next road trip isn’t snaking its way along a trail that connects the state’s many fairytale sawdust dance halls, Tubb’s very endearing country swing hit will lift you on your journey.

“Dallas” by Jimmie Dale Gilmore

They stopped flying DC-9s out of Dallas Love Field years ago, but Gilmore’s reflective ballad, which departs from observing the glittering Dallas skyline from an airplane, captures all the conflicted emotion of shaking the dust off one’s feet, blowing town, and moving on.

“Pancho and Lefty” by Townes Van Zandt

The song was made a hit by Willie Nelson, but in Townes’ imperfect rendition, the song feels most alive. In it, Texas’ greatest songwriter penned an enduring cowboy tale that is at once historical and timeless, a story of all the things we encounter on the road — the mistakes of the past, the dreams of the future, heartache, hope, and ourselves.

“Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love)” by Waylon Jennings with Willie Nelson

In a state that prides itself on large landscape and outsized personality, it is one of its tiniest hamlets that serves as a stand-in for all that is good and lovely about Texas. Luckenbach, as it is perfectly enshrined in Waylon and Willie’s unofficial Texas National Anthem, is what you hope lies at the end of every Texas road trip: a place where you are welcomed and where you find the ones you love.

“Me and Bobby McGee” by Janis Joplin

Brownsville-born Kris Kristofferson’s elegy to road drifting and young love may be the best road song ever written, but in the hands of a certain young soul singer from Port Arthur it became something more: an anthem of American life and a meditation on the false promises of freedom, love, and the American dream.

Think you know Texas? Check out our list of the state’s most important musicians of the last century.

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